Blaming the paper’s not a new idea

Published 5:02 pm Tuesday, August 7, 2018

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I am absolutely confident that Supervisor Dick Grice was not being malicious two weeks ago when he told a local civic club that the “local paper” — that would be us — had incorrectly reported what Isle of Wight County had offered the Department of Juvenile Justice in an effort to woo the agency into building a juvenile detention center near Windsor.

Mr. Grice, first of all, is not a malicious person. And secondly, blaming the newspaper is a pretty standard pastime for politicians. It’s a lot easier than blaming yourself. In fact, I couldn’t begin to count the number of time I have heard a public official say something like “you can’t believe everything you read in the paper” during my 46 years here. It’s most often a tongue in cheek reference made by a public official who finds a reported fact unpleasant or inconvenient.

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In this instance, the county had sent the state a letter signed by Board of Supervisors Chairman Rudolph Jefferson. In that missive, Jefferson told the state that to encourage location of the facility here, Isle of Wight would provide, at no charge, 20 acres of land valued at $700,000. In addition, the county offered to “participate in the cost” of extending water and sewer lines to the site to the tune of $500,000. The letter then conveniently totaled the county’s offering to be $1.2 million.

That number, reported by us, drew criticism from a number of county residents. Some don’t want the facility under any circumstances and some felt that, if it is to be built here, the state probably should be paying the county rather than the other way around.

At any rate, Grice told the civic club members that the county’s output is only $75,000, not $1.2 million. He later said the figure he used (only 6 percent of what the county had told the state) was his opinion, but he didn’t make that differentiation in his remarks. Instead, he merely said the paper had erred and he was telling the truth.

We challenged the comment when we heard it had been made simply because we take this business seriously. We try our best not to make mistakes. Despite those efforts, we sometimes do, and when we do make a mistake, we correct it in print as quickly as possible.

It would have been fine, in this instance, if Mr. Grice had told the civic club that he disagreed with the county’s estimate of the value, or more accurately, perhaps, that he thought the county had inflated the value of its offering by a multiple of 16. Instead, it was convenient to just dismiss the “facts” as incorrect, which they were not.

It’s become part of the nation’s “new norm” for a significant segment of the population to disbelieve anything that doesn’t fit its belief of what either is or ought to be the “truth.” Serious newspapers and broadcast journalists are blamed for asking tough questions and reporting unpopular facts in a hyper-partisan world, and are collectively declared to be the “enemy of the people” by our President. It’s a phrase that would make Joseph Stalin smile.

Tragically, the disdain for legitimate news reporting is occurring not only in Washington, but in state houses, courthouses and town halls.

We can’t change national trends. We can only continue to try each week to get it right to the best of our ability. And we will continue to correct errors we have made. But we can and will challenge statements that fly directly in the face of factual reporting. We have an obligation to our readers and to the future of journalism to do so.